By Irwin Cotler May 9, 2012
T.S. Eliot famously called April “the cruellest month,” and indeed, last month we marked the anniversaries of the Rwandan genocide, Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day — as well as the Armenian genocide and the Srebrenica massacre.
All of these events began in April, and in respect of that, April has now been designated as Genocide Prevention Month.
Yet, as we remember the victims, it also bears reminder that many of the greatest war criminals of the 20th century have not been held to account for their unspeakable crimes. Indeed, there is evidence that a significant number of these criminals reside here in Canada. In particular, on this 18th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda’s prosecutor general, Martin Ngoga, reported that many suspected genocidaires today call Canada home, something that the former Rwandan minister of justice, Jean de Dieu Mucyo, affirmed in conversations with me.
What is true for Rwandan fugitives is no doubt true for fugitives from other killing fields. Indeed, the Canadian Centre for International Justice estimates that approximately 2,000 alleged war criminals and major criminal human rights violators currently reside in Canada.
Canada was at the vanguard of the international fight against impunity, when — over a decade ago — our government took the lead in the establishment of an International Criminal Court, worked to secure the necessary ratifications to bring the ICC treaty into effect, and enacted the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, with all-party support, in implementation of the ICC treaty — a landmark initiative that became a model for other jurisdictions.
Regrettably, however, the Canadian War Crimes Program, which was intended to ensure that Canada would never be a base or sanctuary for these enemies of humanity, is today seriously underfunded, underutilized, and, as such, simply unable to carry out effective, proper investigations and prosecutions of suspected war criminals.
The figures speak for themselves: The government’s war crimes program budget has not had its seriously underfunded annual $15.6-million budget increased since it was established in 1998. It is not nearly enough money to carry out complex domestic and overseas investigations, contributing therefore, to a near total absence of domestic prosecutions in Canada.
Accordingly, rather than prosecute war criminals domestically as initially envisaged, the government has resorted to deporting suspects, a wholly inadequate remedy, and one that risks undermining the cause of justice and the struggle against impunity.
For when Canada prosecutes international crimes domestically — under the principle of universal jurisdiction underpinning our war crimes legislation — it sends a powerful message that not only will Canada not serve as a base or sanctuary, but that war criminals are on notice that they will enjoy neither immunity nor impunity for their international criminality, which transcends borders and jurisdictions.
By prosecuting genocidaires in Canada, we affirm that genocide — the crime whose name we should shudder to mention — is the ultimate crime against humanity, and that we have a collective responsibility to combat it.
Deportation, then, may well allow human rights abusers to evade punishment for their crimes, particularly if they are not prosecuted when returned to their countries of origin.
Indeed, human rights activists have expressed concern, for example, that an alleged Honduran war criminal recently deported from Canada will be free from prosecution and punishment upon his return home. Deportation in such cases can also have a seriously prejudicial impact on post-conflict peace and reconciliation, for there can be no reconciliation without peace, and no peace without justice for the victims of such grave human rights abuses.
A no-less-compelling issue is the government’s obligation not to proceed with prospective deportations of suspected war criminals if there is a serious risk of unjust prosecution or cruel and unusual punishment, or even death consequent upon deportation. Indeed, Canadian courts have affirmed that such deportations violate both our charter and the foundational principles of international justice.
Simply put, the wholesale, and effectively automatic, deportation of alleged war criminals is not an appropriate alternative to the domestic prosecution of war criminals under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. Yet, the implementation of the act, and the effectiveness of government undertakings to enforce it, can only succeed in their obligatory responsibilities if the necessary resources are provided to give expression to the hoped-for requisite political will.
And so, as we take leave of the solemn Genocide Prevention Month, we must recommit to — and implement — a robust Canadian Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Program that effectively holds perpetrators to account, combats the culture of impunity, and implements the principles of international justice and reconciliation that ensure that Canada is not a haven for these hostis humani generis — the enemies of humanity.
Irwin Cotler is a Liberal MP and former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada. He is an emeritus law professor at McGill University and has written extensively on war crimes justice.
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